Things are seldom what they seem and therefore, beware “simple” or “easy” solutions to problems and questions that are themselves neither simple nor easy. In other words, when one is presented with what seems an obvious explanation of something that is itself anything but obvious, one should take care lest in grasping at “the answer,” one fails to understand the nature of the question. Now, I have often reached conclusions based upon an incomplete understanding of the situation extant and, as in any such decisions, ignorance is fatal to accuracy. Let me first explain the particular situation and second, my original conclusion or set of conclusions and then, finally, the results arising from further information intruding into my “well considered” interpretation of events.

First, the matter concerned was the secession of the Southern States from the Union in 1861. I originally believed that the Constitution that had created the Union in 1789 had failed to protect the sovereign States by placing too much power into the supposedly limited “federal” government that had been created, we were told, to operate only “with and through the consent of the governed,” but had failed to live up to that promise over the period from its ratification until the time of the events above noted. In my reasoning, I mentioned great patriots such as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee who, among other “anti-federalists,” rejected the Constitution, warning that in time it would result in what it did indeed become, the basis for a “national government” forever reducing the original sovereign States to entities that were no more “sovereign” than were the many counties and towns existing within the borders of those same states.

I even went back to the Constitutional Convention, pointing out that it had been called to “fix” its precursor, the rather unwieldy Articles of Confederation, but that once begun, the matter was changed into an effort to reject what I had assumed to be the useful if imperfect Articles and replace them with a much more centralizing governing structure, something that I also believed to be unnecessary –  at least at that time. And neither was I alone in my beliefs. Many especially Southern historians also considered the Constitution to be the “foot in the door” for a strong central government and the resultant loss of State sovereignty! And so, I continued to argue these points until . . . the “until” was a sudden interest I developed in Virginia Founding Father and great American hero, George Washington. Of course, I had always thought well of Washington, but my actual knowledge of the man was far more limited than my knowledge of some other historical figures whom I had previously studied. And so, I began to look more deeply into Washington and hence all matters pertaining to the Constitution of which he was an outspoken champion. As I did so, I was suddenly privy to a situation whose complexity and threat had been relatively unknown to me, a situation involving the very nature of the colonies or states, that had waged – and won – a Revolution and, upon doing so, had formed an entirely new political entity on the east coast of North America!

My first disillusionment regarding those same “colonies” came from that part of Washington’s life with which I was already at least somewhat familiar – his ongoing and habitually unavailing efforts to obtain sufficient monies from Congress to pay his army including his officers and to obtain the supplies necessary to maintain that army and its ability to wage war against a vastly superior enemy! Indeed, when Washington was in his most desperate need – in late 1776 after being driven from New York and having fled to New Jersey with the British army close behind – he had not the funds to obtain the boats required to escape with that army across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania! In consequence, he had to send troops to commandeer such boats, promising the outraged owners that they could at least attempt to obtain compensation from Congress! Of course, Washington knew that their chances of getting anything from Congress were slim to none as he – and his army – had long since discovered to their dismay and often, despair!

Another event about which I had known before I began my research, was Washington’s amazing personal act that occurred after the war that prevented his officers from moving against the Congress and thus changing a promised Republic into what might have become a quasi–military dictatorship – a sort of colonial banana republic! Now, the officers involved were not tyrants or men desirous of personal power, but they were men who had been victorious under Washington in the war and who had received little if any of the compensation promised to them by the Congress in return for their service! In other words, they had served without their promised recompense and with very little chance that they would ever receive the wages that had been so nobly and worthily earned while their own families had starved and been rendered homeless! Washington knew that this matter was playing out right in front of him and that he had spent the war not only fighting the British, but Congress in hopes of gaining for the men under him their promised reward! He had even spent of his own personal fortune in an attempt to provide some of what the Congress had promised to those who had fought and died for America. And he knew, when he went that evening to speak to men who had lost faith in him for this perceived failure, that he might simply be ignored and not even permitted to address them. If that happened, George Washington would see the downfall of all he had worked so desperately hard to achieve in the victory over Great Britain! Though faced with rejection and personal disgrace, even despairing –  go he did! And in a simple act of putting on a pair of reading glasses that few of his officers knew he required at that point in his life in order to read a letter he had received from a member of Congress, he managed to diminish the anger of the men around him by saying that he had not only grown old in the service of his country, but also blind. So great was their love for him, even in their righteous indignation, that most of the men in that room were reduced to tears. Thus was America spared a military dictatorship on the very eve of her birth! Never let it be said that George Washington didn’t know how to “use the moment!”

But the problems with the money and the supplies and the material required to win the war did not arise from Congress, but from those very colonies – eventually States – that I at least believed were working together in concert to win the war under the Articles of Confederation! Actually, no, they were not. Indeed, they had never worked well in any kind of a relationship even when they were just colonies without any further pretensions, and it would seem that dipping their collective “feet” into revolution – and all that such an action meant! – did not in any way mend their lack of cohesion and cooperation!  Now, there were two “Continental Congresses, and under the second, the Articles of Confederation were passed. But the “Confederation Congress” had no power to compel the individual states to comply with any of its decisions! And as a result, many prospective delegates who had been elected to serve in that Congress, instead chose to serve within their State governments – where the actual power resided! And thus, Congress frequently could not even establish a quorum to address those needs that arose during the revolution! It wasn’t until the Articles were superseded by the Constitution and the former Continental Congress became the Congress of the United States, that Congress as a body was able to actually accomplish anything! Indeed, Washington was right in saying that he believed America was saved through Divine Providence and not the efforts of men! He had seen God’s intervention often enough – from the bizarre fog that masked his escape from Brooklyn and the sudden squall that prevented Cornwallis and his troops from escaping Yorktown, to the success of his starving and half naked army’s attack on the Hessians in Trenton during a snowstorm! No, events had proved that Washington knew of what he spoke! Had all depended upon the States acting through Congress, there would have been no victory and, hence, no United States of America!

I also learned, as noted above, that even when the “colonies” were nothing but “colonies,” without pretentions of independence and acting under “Royal Governors,” they were still quite often unwilling to work together for the good of the whole or even for the good of two or three, a situation that did not gain them any friends in the British government and its military. In David Preston’s book, Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, I came to better understand the existing situation between Great Britain and its colonies and all that that presaged regarding what was to come! As in most situations, there was blame enough to go around. And while nobody was entirely to blame, the lack of cooperation not only between the colonies and Britain but among the colonies themselves, turned a fairly well considered military operation into a bloody disaster! Of course, this was one of the opening salvos of the so-called French and Indian War, an action that further marred the relationship between the American colonies and their British rulers. But the origins of the war were not limited to colonial matters per se. There can be no doubt that the hostility between England and France outside of the New World, was the spark that eventually ignited that conflict that brought Braddock and his army to Virginia. Ergo, the colonies were a cause rather than the cause of the War – rather like the institution of slavery in the so-called Civil War. Still, it was an expensive operation for the British government and the British people, an operation that seemed to all concerned unappreciated by the very colonies the war was waged to ostensibly assist and protect.

One of the most enlightening matters in the book involved the financing of Braddock’s expedition to remove the French from what the British considered their territory in the western frontier. Braddock’s command was sent to Virginia to launch the campaign that was supposed to force the French and their Indian allies off what the British at least considered to be their territory. Now, Braddock and his command were familiar with warfare as waged by Europeans; that is, war fought in fairly flat landscapes with good roads and many places from which food and other needs could be fairly easily – and cheaply – obtained. Braddock had no idea what was involved in warfare that took place in pathless, mountainous, heavily forested wilderness and along waterways – rivers, lakes and streams – without bridges or the boats necessary to convey men and weapons across or along them. Everything needed for success, he would have to take with him because he could not procure it during the campaign itself. Of course, any attempt to bring supplies with him from Britain including supply wagons and the horses necessary to pull those wagons was out of the question! The cost of sending just the army, its artillery and other materials, as well as all the clothing and personal baggage for both men and officers was expensive enough! And as there was no way to know how long the campaign would take given the weather and other considerations – such as the absence of roads and even maps! – obtaining all other supplies and personnel were directly dependent upon the colony or colonies involved in the campaign.

Of course, as with any war, the biggest requirement was money to fund the purchase of such supplies as were necessary along with the hiring of any needed manpower not brought with the expedition. Now the colonies involved – Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania – had promised material assistance in the campaign as the French and their native allies were coming uncomfortably close to the residents of those same colonies! As a result of these incursions, the colonies here mentioned could hardly be considered “disinterested parties” and thus, their “contributions” a matter of charity. The problem was that few of the promises made by any of the colonies though their Royal Governors came to fruition. Indeed, Braddock was most enraged at Virginia and Maryland, both of which he said had promised much and delivered nothing – whereas Pennsylvania had at least delivered many supplies, horses and wagons through the offices of Benjamin Franklin working with Braddock in that colony. But even Franklin’s efforts fell short of what was needed, leading to Braddock’s continued hostility toward his colonial “hosts.”

Then, another very interesting matter also arose. Braddock had brought with him to lay before the Royal Governors, a personal plea from the King for necessary financial assistance in the campaign. Apparently, according to the author, he was told by the colonial governments that the plea was insufficient; that is, if the British wanted money from the colonies to support the campaign, the request and/or demand had to come through Parliament! At that time, the British Parliament was already considering taxing the colonies directly because of the costs involved in supporting and maintaining them, especially against other European powers presently on the continent. The demand from the Royal Governors for a document from Parliament ordering the payment by those colonies towards the cost of Braddock’s expedition could be seen as request for just such a direct tax by the Mother Country on her children over the sea. Now, we must remember that one of the cries of the Revolution was: no taxation without representation! And while this was understandable, it was the Royal Governors who had already made a demand for just such a system before they considered themselves obligated to help pay for the cost of protecting their own citizens from foreign (French) and domestic (Indian) “enemies.”

And, frankly, this cavalier disregard for the responsibility of the various colonies to support military efforts being undertaken on their behalf and in their defense makes nonsense of the belief that those same colonies –eventually States – during the Revolution were functioning in such a way as to make the Articles under which they were ostensibly “acting” a sufficient foundation for the establishment of a successful nation-state! What had happened in the past and continued to happen through the war was a matter of individual State interest quite absent much, indeed, any concern for the welfare of all including those men fighting and dying to free those same States from Britain. History teaches us that the past is a very good indicator of the future! As that is the case, it is easy to understand the belief by many at the time that the Articles were insufficient for the purpose of creating and sustaining a free country. This was the reason that George Washington was “all in” on the Constitution though as “President” of the convention itself, he was very careful never to intrude his personal opinion into the debate nor to be seen to pressure any of its members regarding his fears and hopes. Rather he did his best to make clear the importance of replacing the Articles with a governing document that would assure the cooperation of every State in the eventual Union even during such periods of dispute and debate that were bound to arise. Washington had been through it all, from the very beginning. He worked with what he had and God blessed this country more than many people understand today in sending such a man who was indeed able to make that proverbial silk purse out of a hideous mess of sows’ ears. But it is also obvious from history that the Articles were simply insufficient to carry those colonies past the war and into what those who were fighting wanted – a representative central government that formed a working union of sovereign states.

Now, I want to bring to light a matter that I believe to be of importance; that is, a personal matter involving Washington himself. It is, I believe necessary to consider as it must have directly affected the man in the performance of his duties as commander in chief. That matter is Washington’s fate had he been captured by the British during the war. Of course, one may ask, why is this important? Simple! No intelligent man is unaware of the consequences of his actions and if those consequences are exceptionally dire, with a lesser man, that fact alone may negatively influence those actions. Indeed, this is very much what happened with the “patriot” Benedict Arnold as he imagined his reduced fame and financial circumstances even should America prevail in the revolution! Arnold had already been crippled by a wound and had seen his victory at Saratoga claimed by another, General Horatio Gates. Gates was a man who despised both Arnold and Washington. Having been born in England and served in the British army, Gates considered himself  the appropriate commander of the colonial forces and as a result did all that he could to denigrate Washington’s achievements and thwart his military endeavors. Indeed, during Washington’s amazing attack on Trenton, a true plan of genius worthy of a Frederick the Great or a Napoleon (see David Hackett Fisher’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Washington’s Crossing), Gates was sulking in Philadelphia rather than giving aid to this tremendous endeavor! Given the circumstances, Arnold’s response was to prevent what he saw as his fate after America’s defeat by joining what he believed to be the “winning side.” But what about George Washington? He could not have been unaware not only of the odds against “his cause” in the revolution, but of the consequences to himself if that cause should fail.

And what, in fact, would his fate have been? Of course, we all remember Benjamin Franklin’s witty response in Congress when calls were made for the delegates to “hang together” to which Franklin responded, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Recently, a television program hosted by Hollywood personality Kelsey Grammar on great American battles presented a program on the Battle of Brooklyn, in which Washington was able to convey his army out of that borough of New York by stealth thus avoiding destruction. This question – that is, of Washington’s fate if taken alive – is presented albeit rather ambiguously early in the episode when Washington is shown going to Congress in hopes of hastening the publication of a Declaration of Independence, a matter he considered essential to motivate his dying army “to fight another day.” In the congressional chamber, the Chairman points out that the British never fail to remind them that as traitors, their fate, if captured, was to be hanged. Washington then rises and sterned-faced, angrily states that under the circumstances mentioned, “hanging would be a mercy!” He then bitterly refers to “a man’s bowels being cut from his living body and burned before his eyes!” Needless to say, I was astonished for what was being referenced here was something that I had only recently considered; that is, the British means of executing those whose crime was to “war against the King” as in the case of an armed rebellion. This punishment is historically known as being “hanged, drawn and quartered!” It was a particularly gruesome, prolonged and agonizing death that involved hanging a man until almost dead followed by the removal of his genitals and bowels that were then “burned before his eyes” as noted in the dialogue. Once dead, the condemned’s severed head was placed on London Bridge while the rest of his body was cut into pieces, soaked in pitch and sent about the countryside for “display” as a warning to other possible rebels! Frankly, I do not believe that anyone can judge the accomplishments of George Washington without knowing the hideous details of this horrific punishment if for no other reason than to more perfectly understand with what Washington had to deal during the war. He knew his fate should he fall into the hands of his enemies. Parenthetically, when considering the needs and supposed ill-usages of those same “sovereign states” for which so many grieve, I personally cannot help but hold against them their failure to provide the most basic needs for Washington and his army under such circumstances. Petty politicians could disappear into the wilderness or take themselves to safety in Europe, but there was no such place of refuge for George Washington – and he knew it.

Actually, I had not considered this particular penalty because I believed it to be irrelevant by 1776, but, in fact, it remained in usage until 1870 at which time it was removed! And if ever there was anyone that the British would have seen as deserving of that monstrous fate, it was George Washington! British commanders desperately wanted him because they understood that he alone maintained the will of Americans to fight, even though, under his leadership almost to the end of the war, in aggregate, American forces had lost more than they had won! In virtually every encounter with the main Continental Army, one of, if not the, greatest concern of the British commander was to capture Washington! Benedict Arnold was assured that he would not receive his promised reward until he brought a captive Washington through British lines alive! As to the program mentioned above, I was most startled to see an actual reference to this horrible means of execution and it gave me pause to think that I was not the only person who understood that George Washington had a far greater stake in the game than mere victory or defeat – or even life or death. Had he been captured his fate would have been unspeakable! We tend to forget such things because, of course, they didn’t happen, but that should in no way lessen our admiration for the man. Remember, our knowledge of what did happen was of no comfort to Washington – and yet he fought on against monstrous odds in spite of the horrors that the future might have held for him.

But in the end, the fallen nature of Man could not be overcome by George Washington or the Constitution or the Spirit that animated the people of that time. The United States of America was, in the end, a creation of human beings and that, alas, was the real problem. For every Washington (if there were indeed even one such in any nation!) there were hundreds of thousands of the apathetic, the stupid, the weak and the criminal – as well as men who had perhaps the best of intentions while having the worst of ideas (see Alexander Hamilton) and this very  human condition has resulted for us in America as in the final conclusion of all human endeavors, failure! But for this we cannot blame the Constitution! Like the Bible, it was a document, a matter of words on paper, and like the Bible, it stands or falls in the affairs of men, not by its content, but by how those men choose to interpret or – in the alternative, to even reject it. I no longer blame the Constitution for the first truly deadly blow dealt to Washington’s new nation, the secession of the Southern States. Such blows, large and small, began even before Americans decided that they would rather be authentic Americans than faux Englishmen as can be seen in the Braddock narrative. No man could have prevented what eventually transpired and the failure of those who worked desperately to prevent that outcome cannot be laid to them – or to the Constitution. As with General Braddock’s campaign against the French, there is blame enough to go around.

Valerie Protopapas

Valerie Protopapas is an independent historian and the former editor of The Southern Cavalry Review, the journal of The Stuart-Mosby Historical Society.


  • Russell Doster says:

    The Lesson that God teaches us everyday is that mankind cannot govern himself. That is why we need a Savior who can govern us.

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    I don’t remember which of the Founding Fathers said that the United States could only work for a Christian people. He wasn’t speaking about creed or religion, but of a moral philosophy. Today what’s left of our poor nation is ruled by liars and murderers. That is why we are where we are and I assume that very soon indeed, Washington’s monuments and images will also be removed, more’s the pity. Already all that he is recognized for today is the fact that he owned slaves! My God!! The man could have become a king and it would have been given to him gladly. When King George was told that Washington had gone to Congress and returned the orders that made him Commander in Chief, the King told the man who advised him, “This is truly a great man!” And that’s the King whose forces Washington defeated in war! But today, what we have, as my grandfather used to say, isn’t fit to wash wagon wheels!

  • scott thompson says:

    i guess. christians in some parts burned heretics, all parts had slaves…some parts sold them to other parts for profit and eventually, all parts for the most part were desiring an end to slavery. but the war tween the states wasn’t to free black people and the union killed n number of them as well. if you invoke a document and then begin to wiggle out freakish meanings, ie ‘mystic chords of memory’ to fresh socialist foreigners’….eh? i think Washington in his own words turned over the written republic building to Jefferson by stating ‘your mastery of those affairs is greater than mine’. with this article, then lets just destroy everything, and start killing everyone if the language is going to be ignored. thumbs down. a true federal republic, weak central govt, was the best way to keep disparate interests at peace and only truly unite under attack. some grabbers just couldn’t help themselves and desired centralization, and a manufactured country/national myth as a way to power. aside from KFC and grocery stores, some medicine and some geographic features i hate the place. I’ve been lied to my entire life by the schools here.

    • Valerie Protopapas says:

      There is no way that anyone can compel “what is right” as often this differs from person to person. Washington tried desperately to prevent any plan of government that failed to put the American people in charge in order to raise individual men and their personal schemes to power. He always believed that the people in the aggregate would rise to do what was right and that even men guided by a belief that they had “the answer,” if it in any way worked AGAINST the People should be defeated. God knows, Americans would have given Washington every power to rule them; they loved him that much. But he would never make use of that affection for his own gain. Of course, the fact is, he was a man who had no equal then and now. Actually, I believe if he were to return, he would be treated by the Deep State as the British wanted to treat him during the revolution. Wicked people hate the good. We see it every day.

Leave a Reply